Indian food has had a tough time here. The land of steaks as thick as phone books and spuds the size of VW Beetles is inhospitable to cuisine more complex than a T-bone. Stripped down to its basics, Indian grub incorporates some two dozen herbs and spices, including coconut, chilies, tamarind, saffron, mango powder, cloves, garlic and curry--itself a cluster bomb of tongue perturbations. It's a cuisine that comes from a culture that, with a straight face, boasts that a proper well-balanced meal contains all six basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, astringent and spicy-pungent. Most people in Dallas don't brush up against that range of tastes over an entire month if you don't count Keystone Light.
Whatever the reason, most Indian restaurants here don't display the complexity and creativity inherent in the cuisine and instead resort to buffet tables and tandoori treatments that turn the food into infant gruel and jerky. That tandoor, a clay oven fired by charcoal and the Clay Pit Grill & Curry House's namesake, is used for roasting marinated meats and vegetables as well as baking Indian flatbread known as nan. It's a volatile culinary instrument, reaching temperatures of more than 500 degrees, and in our experience it rarely excretes fodder more enticing than plush burlap, at least in Dallas.
Clay Pit is an offshoot of a highly successful restaurant in Austin opened in 1998 by chef Tinku Saini and Nazir Khamisa, the latter the founder of Chutney's restaurant in Seattle. Clay Pit proffers contemporary Indian cuisine, an innovation that melds traditional Indian dishes with contemporary touches: sinking mussels in a curry sauce dolled up with garlic, red wine and rose water, for instance. This addicting thick and red slurry is rich and zesty, full and robust. An order of nan for mopping is essential, but the meat tucked within the shells was tiny and a little mushy, though it was generally clean in flavor.
Like all great entrepreneurial flourishes fed on buzzwords, Clay Pit has a mission statement. "At Clay Pit, we are committed to providing our guests a high-energy, contemporary restaurant and bar with fresh, innovative Indian food at moderate prices...At Clay Pit, we have devoted meticulous attention to our selection of wines, specialty drinks and beers to perfectly complement our food...Clay Pit is known for knowledgeable and personable wait staff who are actively engaged with their tables. They are not order takers..." And so on.
The statement is somewhat true. The food is indeed imaginative and reasonably priced. The wine list is a thoughtful lot, including a smattering (though not enough) of Gewurztraminers and Rieslings that pair well with punchy curries that can sometimes come on like a flamethrower. And the servers are certainly personable. But knowledgeable?
Our server didn't know the difference between a red and a white wine, a distinction that could reasonably be classified as fundamental.
Service foibles aside, Clay Pit food is flawed but mostly good, with some entrants slipping into exceptional. Complimentary crisp tortilla-like flecks roasted in a tandoor oven are served with a trio of sauces including a mint chutney, a tamarind chutney and a salsa.
Coriander calamari, however, sounds more innovative than it is. The little uniform rings were buttery, and the coating was well-seasoned, or least seasoned more than most versions. But they were greasy and a little mushy, and the garlic-cilantro dipping sauce was a little tepid.
Pakoras--chickpea and cumin-battered cauliflower, onion, zucchini, potato--also lacked spark. Cucumber salad, an inelegantly strewn mesh of cucumber slices, onion and waxy tomato wedges in a bracing tamarind dressing, was so cold it numbed the taste buds. But mulligatawny soup was sublime: smooth, chunkless and zesty, with hearty earthen flavors that were clean and sharp.
The vast majority of the Pit's grilled meats, tortured as they were in a tandoor oven, were parched. The mixed grill was riddled with dry chicken, Brillo pads of beef and overcooked lamb, though the latter retained enough flavor and hints of sweat to make it appealing.
A skillfully executed sauce can overcome dry meat--at least partially. Lamb chunks pillowed in thick vindaloo curry were overcooked, dry and chewy, but the rich brazenness of the sauce, bumped with onions, bell peppers and potatoes and suffused with a paprika and tamarind chutney, clouded over these deficiencies.
Even the wet stuff wasn't wet. Seafood grill contained a parched piece of unidentified fish, mealy prawns and a delicious slab of flaky, moist (surprise!) salmon.
The Pit is a retrofit of a Black-eyed Pea, and it retains a bit of that Spartan feel, albeit with a few flourishes stapled onto it. A large glass water wall marks the entrance, and a strip of curvaceous banquettes with rectangular cobalt blue peepholes separates the dining room from the bar. A slightly elevated dining area features an apparatus containing three false windows with shimmery draperies shielding the wall behind it. It's an ambience rich in amber and rust that is rudely invaded by the harsh fluorescent lighting spilling from wide-open kitchen doors at each end. Our server said the open kitchen doors are intended to flood the room with curry aromas, but since when is curry thwarted by shut doors, or concrete walls for that matter?
Yet this is not to suggest that the Pit doesn't hoist itself out of its namesake cavity and rise to provocative heights now and then. Khuroos e tursh, a Pit signature, is an astounding dish, even if it looks like a row of petite chicken-fried steaks swamped in Black-eyed Pea cream gravy. Medallions of chicken breast, jammed with a spinach, mushroom, onion and cheese pulp, are simmered in a cashew-almond cream sauce. Chicken is largely little more than a mute canvas conveying virtually any flavor with which you deign to infect it. And this dish is a mess, what with spinach and nuts and spices, but it works extraordinarily well. The cream sauce nips with a pinch of sweetness kept in check by a surge of spices. The flavors are multitudinous, but never smothering or clashing. Shrimp rice creation was just as promiscuously flavored with juicy shrimp curls and long, supple and separate rice grains imbued with spices that stained the grains rust. The heap heaved with hefty ginger, clove and onion vapors while the flavors were sharply drawn.
Chai spice crème brûlée, punched with coriander, clove and cinnamon, was a drop-kick back into the pit. The crisp lid, bubbled with spice pockets, was tasty. But it was cool instead of warm, and the too-chilled custard was stiff and pasty, not smooth and velvety. Maybe it, too, was tortured in the tandoor.
Still, measured against the general timbre of Indian fare in Dallas, the Clay Pit easily squeezes in near the top, though pesky details keep it from reaching the buzzword heights described in the mission statement. Yet most problems could be easily remedied. Try wine color decoder rings for the wait staff for instance.
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